In a scathing letter last week, Durham’s county manager accused a county commissioner of racism, alleging that she has an “inherent bias” not only toward him but toward “people of color in general.”

“I will not tolerate disparate treatment of my staff, myself, or anyone else carrying out the public’s work,” Wendell M. Davis, who is black, wrote to Commissioner Heidi Carter, who is white, on February 11. 

Davis said Carter had aimed “disparaging remarks” at him during a February 3 work session when she said the county could have completed a funding plan to improve Durham Public Schools facilities “sooner, were it not for the manager.”

That delay, Davis continued, was not his fault. Rather, the county’s financial adviser was waiting on cash-flow projections from DPS. Davis pushed back against what he perceived as Carter’s implication that he was being lax and said his office follows exacting standards and practices “despite which way the political winds blow.”

“I am now concerned that [the criticism is] due to an inherent bias that you harbor not merely towards me, but people of color in general,” Davis wrote.

Carter, who served on the DPS Board of Education for 15 years, is seeking her second term on the Board of Commissioners. She’s been endorsed by the INDY and the People’s Alliance PAC. 

In an email, Carter says that while she chaired the school board, “the County Manager regularly argued against the operational funding increases needed by our public schools. That annual funding struggle was part of my motivation to run for a seat on the county commission.”

While the county has increased operational funding for DPS over the last three years, she admits that she’s been “disappointed in the county manager’s pace in driving the creation of a plan for addressing the school system’s urgent capital needs.” During the work session, she expressed the “concerns and frustration” she’s been hearing from the community.

Board chairwoman Wendy Jacobs, also up for reelection, says Carter has been focused on school funding since she became a commissioner in December 2016. 

“She has been a voice on our board for school funding and meeting the needs of the schools,” Jacobs says.

Carter says race has nothing to do with it. While she acknowledges that she has benefited from white privilege, Carter says she was nonetheless “shocked” and “saddened” by Davis’s accusations. 

But that wasn’t the only time Davis said he’s seen Carter motivated by bias. He cited several other examples pointing to what he said was “a consistent pattern of disparate treatment towards me and employees of color” dating back to 2016.

Soon after Carter joined the board, Davis wrote, she told him, “You work for the Board, and when we tell you to do something, you’d better grin and bear it.”

Davis likened that remark “to a time in American history when people of color were slaves and of more recent history, when people of color suffered under Jim Crow and segregation laws.

“A time when the law of the land enforced colored only bathrooms and water fountains, sitting in the back of the bus, separate and unequal schools, and living in under-served all-black-communities,” he wrote. “The unspoken rules, then and now, were that Black people are to do as told, stay in their place, and their lives would be fine. So, Black people had to ‘grin and bear it’ or go along to get along so that whites would not make trouble for the Black person or the Black community.”

During the same meeting in which Carter told Davis to “grin and bear it,” Davis continued, he saw Carter hanging on every word offered by the county budget director, city mayor, chief of staff, and “any other white person” before “heaping praise” on them. By comparison, he continued, Carter told an African American woman who holds a Ph.D., “You are so articulate.” 

Davis also wrote that county employees were frustrated with Carter’s persistent questions about plans to implement a compensation and classification study, and Carter sent an “untold number of emails and inquiries” about the study to African American staff members and an African American consultant for nearly a year before giving her approval—and then only after the African American consultant brought his white counterpart to a commissioners meeting.

“After numerous years of experience, undergraduate degrees, law degrees and rendering an expert opinion on class and comp studies, our African American consultant and staff were insulted that they needed validation from a White colleague to receive your approval,” Davis wrote.

Jacobs, however, says most commissioners shared Carter’s concerns about the study: The data showed that raises were going to the county’s highest-paid employees, while employees like social workers weren’t even being paid market rates. 

Commissioner Brenda Howerton, who is seeking her fourth term on March 3, says Davis has a point: Some of Carter’s statements “are racist as hell.” After reading the letter, she told the INDY, “I don’t know what took him so long to respond. It’s been bad.”

Howerton, who is black, says Carter has been disrespectful to Davis since she joined the board. 

“I try to rise above stuff and stay on the issue. I just know when she speaks to him, it doesn’t come off as respectable,” she says. “That’s a key value. You may not like me, but you will respect me.”

She adds: “Let me make one thing perfectly clear here: Heidi Carter is not the victim.”

It’s impossible to ignore the potential political ramifications. Davis wrote the letter—and it began to circulate—just as early voting in the Board of Commissioners races was getting underway. Who gets elected on March 3 could determine whether Davis’s contract is renewed next year. 

In June 2016, county commissioners renewed Davis’s contract for five years—initially on a 3–2 vote, with Jacobs and Commissioner Ellen Reckhow dissenting, though the board later voted unanimously to affirm it when the contract came up a second time. The contract paid Davis—who first became manager in 2014—more than $210,000 a year and required the county to pay him for the rest of the time period were he to be fired without cause. 

Two of Davis’s allies in 2016 were lame ducks: Fred Foster and Michael Page had both lost in the March primary, but the new board—including Carter—wasn’t sworn in until December. Without her on the board, he might stand a better chance of being renewed. 

Howerton brushes aside the suggestion Davis’s letter had anything to do with his contract renewal. 

“I haven’t heard anything about that,” she says. 

Jacobs declined to comment on Davis’s job performance, citing the county’s personnel policies. Carter, Reckhow, and Commissioner James Hill could not be reached for comment Tuesday about the quality of Davis’s work.  

Davis ended his letter by writing that because he is the 21st of 22 children born to sharecropper parents who had eighth-grade educations, he is a staunch advocate of education.

“I would say that too often, bigotry is cloaked in the most liberal of circumstances,” Davis wrote. “It is not okay to sit on the dais and espouse words of equity when your deeds and actions diametrically oppose the principles of egalitarianism and fairness.”

See Davis’s letter and Carter’s response below. 

Wendell Davis letter re: Heidi Carter 021120 by Jeffrey Billman on Scribd

Response h Carter by Jeffrey Billman on Scribd

Contact Thomasi McDonald at

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